Mary Grant Bruce (christened Minnie), was born in Sale, Victoria in 1878. She enjoyed writing from an early age, and became editor of the school magazine at the ripe old age of ten! Her first novel - A Little Bush Maid, published in 1910, was based on her already popular children's serial of the same name, which appeared weekly in The Age. Being an instant success, she was urged to continue the story, with the result that Mates at Billabong, was published only a few months later. So began her hugely successful career and series, with thirteen more Billabong books to follow as well as numerous other volumes.
Bruce's Billabong books, by far her most successful, were released at a time when many changes were taking place in the publishing world, education and society itself. They had wide appeal, being read and enjoyed by; all ages, all classes, both city and country dwellers, by English and Australian audiences and later by other nationalities as well. Surprisingly forward in her thinking for the time, her books contained strong female protagonists, alternative family structures and included many other nationalities as characters and not always in the role of the villian! Though not always spoken of favourably , the Chinese and Aborigines in particular, made common appearances. The Lintons and Billabong station idealised the Australian way of life and added to the creation of the Australian image. For many, they represented the Australian way of life (Alexander, 1979, p. 1). They, offered the notion of an orderly, established, self-contained and comfortable society of clear-cut, decent, conservative values and a picture of a romantic outdoor life, appealing equally to city and country readers alike (McVitty, 1989, p. 32).Although nowadays her books are considered quite sexist, Bruce's female characters, although few in the Billabong series, mainly Norah and Tommy, are strong, capable and full of virtues, good role models for any young reader. Scutter in her paper, Back to Back to Billabong in Finding a Voice, talks about the 'invisible females' and how female characters have been 'erased by the male'. But we are talking about books written prior to 1930, so of course they are racist, sexist and classist!! I tend to agree with Watson, who comments, that Bruce had a very modern approach to characterisation, that Mateship, straight-forwardness, pleasure in everyday events, indeed [Bruce portrays] something approaching equality of the sexes (Watson, 1990, p. 119). Whilst Norah is not without her share of gentle accomplishments (Bruce, 1911, p. 10), Norah's horse-riding or her skill with a stockwhip is perhaps one reason why the Billabong books were almost as popular with boys as with girls (Watson, 1990, p. 119). Indeed, Many Australian children saw in Billabong the Australia of their dreams (Alexander, 1979, p. 35).
An important part of their overall appeal was how realistic each adventure was. Based on Bruce's own life and travels, many of the characters were modeled on actual friends and relations. David Linton is based on her own father, Eyre Lewis Bruce and Jim on her older brother Patrick. Billabong itself is similar to her grandparent's station Fernhill and the neighbouring Tyson property, blessed like the Linton's, with seemingly unlimited wealth! Mary's journey's to and from Australia with her husband, George Bruce, and their life in Ireland, became the basis for books such as From Billabong to London, Jim and Wally and Back to Billabong. Added to this, each book contained its fair share of tragedy and treachery, with numerous adventures that kept her readers intrigued for years.
Bruce's views on education and how children should be treated, are also quite 'modern' and clearly apparent in all of her books. Bruce felt education should be made more interesting for children, by abolishing rote learning and other boring routines, substituting them for a more lively approach (Alexander, 1979, p. 84). She later adds, Booklearning is fine for those who want it, but for those whose talents lie in other directions excessive education at school is unnecessary (p.100). Thus it was clear that Bruce believed children be treated as individuals and that their talents be explored. Very different from the children should be seen and not heard approach, so common in society at that time. From Alexander's biography, and her own life's work, it is clear Bruce had a great love of children and they, in turn, loved her. Both before and after the release of the first Billabong books, she devoted a great deal of time to the creation of various children's pages and stories, replying in person, to each child whose letter she received. Unlike many older people, Mary never criticised contemporary youth, but had an open mind on the subject, stressing the good in them. She was a firm believer in "the potentialities of the youth of the present generation" (Alexander, 1979, p. 124). Her books were used as school novels and she gave many addresses in schools throughout New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. She also began the Cinderella's Cot Fund for children in hospital, using her pen name, Cinderella from The Leader. Thus one can see how devoted she was to children and how much she enjoyed their company.
Bruce's work, when read in the nineties, seems extremely old fashioned, with numerous exclamations such as By Jove! and You are a brick!, (which echoed throughout our household for months after reading them!!), but she also has rather a subtle, yet delightful sense of humour. For instance, in From Billabong to London, when arriving at Billabong, Bruce describes the greeting given by the dogs, the dogs took charge of you directly you arrived, and made vigorous remarks about you (p. 11). Or in Mates at Billabong, describing Norah's sudden launch into the lagoon, the mud received her softly and clung to her with affection (p. 33).
With subjects she was unfamiliar with, she took great pains to accurately research, which she seemed to enjoy immensely. For instance, the research into the Aborigines and their legends was something she found quite fascinating resulting in, The Stone Axe of Burkamukk - a collection of Aboriginal legends, which became one of her personal favourites. Although this did not succeed as she would have hoped the research involved was extensive and the introduction outlines one of her most important philosophies on life. We are apt to look on the blacks as utter barbarians but, as we read their own legends, we see that they were boys and girls, men and women, not so unlike us in many ways, and that they could admire what we admire in each other (Alexander, 1979, p. 85).
In each of her books, her female characters were what many modern day publishers call for today - capable, strong, independent, good role models, full of fun and adventure, of which Robin is a fine example. Robin, is the only child of a single mother, who live together on a property they have inherited from an uncle. Life, whilst being hard work, is extremely enjoyable for them both, especially when paying guests come to stay. The descriptions, whilst not lengthy, are very Australian. Bruce's love of her country comes through clearly. I have written of the land I love, and tried to interest people in it (cited in Alexander, 1979, p. 129). Her language, as in other books, is understandably old-fashioned, with parents being referred to as Dear and Darling, but still in Bruce's straightforward style. Robin herself is everything a teenager 'should' be, courageous, outspoken and rebellious, yet honest, caring and kind. Bruce's sympathies for youth and their need to be outrageous are clearly portrayed. "But raiding's just stealing!" [comments Eliza] "Not when you're young it ain't", defended the cook and later in the book, Mrs. Hurst was one of those who believe that childhood cannot always sit up and behave prettily, if it is to develop on the right lines.
Golden Fiddles, released in 1928, is the story of a poverty stricken family who inherits a fortune and then goes through the highs and lows of greed, desire, wealth, of being accepted into the social scene and then again, not! Needless to say, they discover, money is not everything and decide not to stay a part of the elite Melbourne set. Again Bruce's strong family values ring true and the children learn valuable lessons in finding out how family, love and real acceptance are far more important than anything money can buy. Again Bruce's subtle humour is expressed, when the Balfour family, for instance, arrive in the city for the first time. Here the children discover the wonders of trains, trams, shops, cars and electric cleaners!
Told By Peter, written in 1938, really shows Bruce's skills as a story teller. Here is a true adventure story, written in the first-person, through the young protagonist's eyes. It also includes a chapter by Peter's little sister Binkie - spelling errors and all! This is an exciting, action packed story, with twists and turns along the way, one the reader simply cannnot put down. Once again the children epitomize goodness in youth, each with their own individual personalities, strengths and weaknesses. The children meet and befriend many interesting characters, until finally coming across the low down Smedley and Mount. These two go to great lengths to end the young lives of Peter and Clem, though on the surface they seem more than interested in all the boys do and say, yet Peter finds this is all a pretence and instead discover, their plan is murder! Unfortunately its follow on Peter & Co. does not hold the same appeal. Unlike Told by Peter, one continually feels it has been written by an adult trying to sound like a child and thus is somewhat strained. The action is also long in coming and does not appear until page 200 or so and has finished 30 or 40 pages on! A great pity after the well written and exciting Told by Peter.
Bruce was a prolific writer, with thirty-eight volumes published in all, including two for younger readers, namely Rossiter's Farm and The Cousin From Town. These were written for the Whitcombe Story Book school reader series illustrated by Esther, one of the talented Paterson sisters. Her published works included numerous newspaper and magazine articles and children's pages. In later years, Mary Grant Bruce, went on to write for BBC television and radio, especially during wartime, making hundreds of radio broadcasts on a large number of subjects, including the power of positive thinking and alternate forms of healing. Both of which appeared in Peter & Co. as a means for curing Peter's broken leg. Mary continued to write until 1942 when her final Billabong book was produced, and after returning to England, died in 1958 aged 80.
1910, A Little Bush Maid, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1911, Mates at Billabong, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1912, Timothy in Bushland, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1912, Glen Eyre, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1913, Norah of Billabong, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1914, Gray's Hollow, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1915, From Billabong to London, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1916, Jim and Wally, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1917, Possum, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1918, Dick, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1919, Captain Jim, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1920, Dick Lester of Kurrajong, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1920, Rossiter's Farm, Whitcomb and Tombs, Melbourne, Vic.
1921, Back to Billabong, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1922, The Cousin From Town, Whitcomb and Tombs, Melbourne, Vic.
1922, The Stone Axe of Burkamukk, (Aboriginal Legends and stories), Ward Lock, London, UK.
1923, The Twins of Emu Plains, Ward Lock, Melbourne, Vic.
1924, Billabong's Daughter, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1925, The Houses of the Eagle, Ward Lock, Melbourne, Vic.
1925, Hugh Stanford's Luck, Cornstalk, Sydney, NSW.
1926, The Tower Rooms, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1926, Robin, Cornstalk, Sydney, NSW.
1927, Anderson's Jo, Cornstalk, Sydney, NSW.
1927, Billabong Adventurers, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1928, Golden Fiddles, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1929, The Happy Traveller, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1931, Bill of Billabong, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1932, Road to Adventure, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1933, Billabong's Luck, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1934, Seahawk, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1935, Wings Above Billabong, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1936, Circus Ring, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1937, Billabong Gold, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1938, Told by Peter, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1939, Son of Billabong, Ward Lock, London, UK.
1940, Peter and Co., Ward Lock, London, UK.
1941, Karalta, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, NSW.
1942, Billabong Riders, Ward Lock, London, UK.
Further Reading Back to title page
Alexander, A. 1979, Billabong's Author; The life of Mary Grant Bruce, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, NSW.
Niall, B. 1979, Seven Little Billabongs, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Vic.
Back to title page